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The Killing Edge

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 5

 

Ayog found reason to linger in the village. An old woman who desired to look through his trunk of kitchen utensils, searching out the perfect tools in exchange for packets of powdered roots and spices that she gathered and ground herself from the forests.

Then there was breakfast to be had, which Sano was reluctant to go without, so they had flatbread from the night before and fruit from the bounty the forest offered. They sat thereafter, on a low stone wall, while Ayog conducted the last of his business, Sano sucking the last of the flesh from the pit of his fruit, Kenshin turning his in his fingers while he watched the village children taunt a mangy dog with a stick endlessly thrown.

The boy, Jai, ventured closer, giving Sano a wary look, which Sano returned. Kenshin smiled in welcome.

"Good morning, Jai." He canted his head curiously at the set of small red marks on the boy's bare torso. "Or not so good a morning. You look as if you were caught in a hail of pebbles."

Jai frowned, rubbing at one such mark. "I practiced this morning. Daaruk and Bhola were happy to toss rocks at me - - but I was not so good at catching them."

"Ah." Kenshin cast a warning glance at Sano, who snorted in laughter. "There are better ways to develop fast reflexes than having rocks thrown at you."

"What ways?"

Kenshin considered. In matter of fact, Hiko had tossed no few painful objects at him, during the early days of his training, a strong believer that pain and the avoidance thereof led to faster learning. It wasn't a method of teaching that Kenshin favored.

"Jai," the boy's mother, a ceramic urn on her hip, paused in her trip towards the well. "Don't pester the strangers."

The boy frowned and Kenshin cast her an innocent smile. "No pestering. Jai is a very inquisitive boy."

She paused, giving both he and Sano a look, uncertain and said almost defensively. "He is a good boy. He'll make a fine farmer like his father."

"I won't be," Jai shot back. "I'll be a great warrior like Aakash."

She smacked him lightly upside the head, telling him to shush. "Foolish boy. Aakash is no warrior. Now there are chores you've yet to do. Find them."

The boy scowled, but scurried off, regardless. The mother hesitated, distraught, and said one more time. "Jai is a good boy."

Kenshin thought she knew very well what her elder son had become and dreaded the notion that her younger one dreamed of following in his footsteps. There were few words a man might offer, who had no intentions of staying past the afternoon. It was doubtful she would appreciate words of advice from strangers regardless.

He inclined his head, and she walked away, casting a look over her shoulder.

"It's her son that's the bandit?" Sano asked.

Kenshin nodded. "I believe so."

"Sucks." Sano tossed the pit. "About the little one and all."

Kenshin silently agreed.

"I can understand though. When you're a kid," Sano said. "Almost anything sounds better than being a farmer."

"I don't recall having an opinion, one way or another. I just - - was." He frowned, trying to remember what dreams if any he had had, when he'd been that young and destined for the life of a peasant farmer, and failing. Certainly the notion of becoming a swordsman of some repute had never entered his mind.

Sano snorted, pushing himself off the wall, and jerking his head towards Ayog's wagon. "Looks like he's finished his business."

"Hn." Kenshin slipped off the wall himself, gaze wondering to the boy, who had abandoned the idea of chores and was playing with the dog and the other children.

They helped the old smith hitch up the forge to the wagon. There was little fanfare as they began the slow trip out of town. Just sullen looks from the men, and the stares of the women and children, paused in their activity to watch the mules plod down the street through the row of huts.

Kenshin and Sano walked, free of the weight of packs, which were secure in the wagon. It was a nice day, not too hot yet, the sky clear of the darker clouds that might bring rain. A good day for traveling.

There was a cry from the village. Another that sounded of anger, and Kenshin turned, as Sano did, the wagon not quite cleared the last of the village huts, and saw men on the road leading in. A great many men in the sand colored uniforms and cloth wrapped peaked helmets of Royal army infantry.

Sano cursed, grabbing Kenshin's arm and hauling him into the shadows between the last two huts. "Son of a bitch. I can't believe the bastard chased us all the way here."

Kenshin peered around the edge of the hut as the regiment of infantry spilled into the village, to the outraged cries of the villagers. Outrage that was doubled as one protesting villager was shoved off his feet.

"We don't want you here," A man cried.

"Your Raj Governor has already stolen this years taxes from us. We have nothing more to give." Another shook the fist holding the staff of a hoe.

Guns came up from no few of the native infantry that had formed a line across the single village street. An officer on a horse, reined close, scattering several of the village men. Kenshin recognized him as the one from the previous town. Sano must have as well, because he cursed again, under his breath.

"Stop that wagon," the officer cried, and Sano and Kenshin drew back further in the shadows as a trio of infantry trotted towards Ayog's wagon, yelling for him to halt.

The old smith already had, and he sat there, not looking towards Sano and Kenshin, not willing to give them away, as the Sepoy infantrymen stomped up, demanding he climb down from his perch. There was little room for argument with their rifles in hand, and the old man grudgingly climbed down. The infantry men yanked open the back door of the van and gave the interior a cursory once over, looking for passengers, and urged Ayog back towards the gathering once they'd assured themselves there were none.

"Where are they?" The officer was demanding of the villagers. "We know this village shelters cutthroats and seditionists. Give them up if you don't wish to suffer their fate. The punishment for supporting insurgents against the crown is no less than the crime of insurgency itself."

There was an uproar, a cry of denial and anger from the gathered towns folk.

"English pig," A man cried. "You lie. There are none here but you, who do not rightfully belong."

One of the Sepoy, a man with a bloodied bandage around his arm, slammed the butt of his rifle against the villager's face, and the villager staggered back, into the arms of his fellows, bleeding from the mouth.

A rock was thrown and if Kenshin were any judge, it did not come from the hand of a man, but rather from a boy hidden at the edge of the crowd. It was a good throw though. It hit the officer dead in the face, breaking the taut skin of his cheek. It was the pivotal point. The harbinger of disaster that might or might not have come regardless, brought on by a boy spurred by the resentment of his elders.

Kenshin didn't see who fired the first shot. Some startled native infantryman faced with an angry crowd of villagers and a commander rocked back in his saddle by a blow from an unknown assailant, who fired into the mass of humanity. A man went down to the shrieks of women and the cries of other men, and all hell broke loose.

Gunfire broke out, an epidemic of it, mixed with the screams of people, the barking of village dogs, the scream of the officer to form up. Village men rushed towards the line of infantry, trying to wrestle guns away, even as the elderly and women and children ran.

Sano swore, bursting from their shelter, heading recklessly into fire towards the old smith, who was still in the custody of two frightened sepoy infantry. Kenshin hissed and followed, the crack of rapid gunfire spurring instances of red tinged memory, of tangled men and swords and gunfire on the battlefields of home, during the last bloody year of the Meiji revolution. He abhorred guns and the careless wreckage they made of lives. It took little enough skill to pull a trigger, and in a crowded street none at all to hit a target, be it one aimed at or a chance encounter. A fleeing woman went down not five feet from him, caught by a stray bullet. He heard the distant voice of the English officer yelling at his men to reload and fire and this not even a proper battlefield.

Sano caught up with the old smith, slamming a fist into the side of one startled sepoy's face, then twisting the gun out of the hands of the other and smacking the barrel against the owner's head. He was screaming something at Ayog, gesturing towards the wagon, when the old man staggered, falling against Sano and Sano screamed outrage. He looked back to Kenshin, who darted to one side, yanking an old woman down as a bullet tore past, then stared into the face of Jai and his mother as the woman dragged the wide-eyed child towards the huts, seeking safety. The boy went down, even as she clutched his hand, his skinny bare chest blossoming with red as the bullet tore through. It spattered Kenshin's sleeve and he crouched as she screamed, gathering the still wide-eyed form of the child, wailing.

For a moment, he couldn't think past the blood staining his sleeve, past the stain on the dirt under the child. A child not much older than Kenji would have been - - a child robbed of everything by the casual squeeze of a trigger. A bullet hit the dirt between them and he rose, sprang towards the woman and dragged her away from the body of her child, thrusting her towards the shelter of a hut. If she didn't have the sense to stay and make use of it, it was beyond him to help her.

He turned, looking for Sano. Wanting Sano away from here - - away from a slaughter that Sano wasn't equipped to deal with. Knowing well enough that Sano hadn't the sense in the heat of rage - - the heat of grief - - to know his own limitations.

And the old man was down, Sano roaring in fury, stalking through the exodus of women and frightened men towards the line of riflemen.

The English officer saw him, hard not to miss him, taller than the rest, with nothing but purpose in his stride, and raised his own firearm.

Kenshin darted after him, too far away to make a difference, even if he'd had a way of making it, unarmed as he was. The pistol fired and Sano twisted, not in avoidance, Sano's speed wasn't that refined, but from impact. The bullet spun him half around and then again and he staggered, falling backwards over the body of a villager, not moving thereafter, blood on his chest, blood on his face. The bullets might as well have hit him, for the overwhelming pain in his chest, the utter wrenching slap of horror as Sano went down and with him everything left to Kenshin that made a difference. That last strand that held the pieces of him together stripped away. Stolen by the intent of another. Just like Kaoru and Kenji.

Everything slowed. Noise a muffled murmur in the background, movement sluggish like sap making its way down the bark of a tree. Kenshin saw blood and screaming faces, flashes of bamboo and glints of swords that might have been real but probably weren't. Something hit his arm, but he didn't feel pain. Didn't feel anything but a seeping wave of cold wrath. He zeroed in on the man on the horse. Grim set mouth, white skin and drooping mustache. Eyes as cold as Kenshin's intent. The man saw him and raised his side arm again - - and Kenshin moved.

Back towards the wagon, bullets pinging off the iron of the forge as he reached it, springing in through the back door that the sepoy had left ajar after their search. He didn't bother looking for the key, just slammed his foot against the lock in the big chest at the back and smashed the metal from the wood. And there it lay, atop the pile where the old man had left it, aged sheath and dry rotted hilt that fit his hand like it had been made for him and him alone.

He was out of the van before the first bullets began hitting the wood of it, diving through the door and rolling behind the forge for cover. Focus expanded, senses swelling to battle sharpness, aware of everything. Every flicker of movement, every whisper of sound, the stir of the air as a bullet whizzed by. The crunch of a boot in dirt as a sepoy rounded the corner of the forge, rifle at ready.

And he cut him down before the man could take that second step. Sliced him neatly across the throat and kept moving, taking out the one behind him with the return arc of the blade before the first man had realized he was dead. Didn't pause to hear the bodies fall, darting between huts to circle the back way, past the dwindling stragglers who'd survived the initial wild shooting spree, across someone's carefully tended garden plot, and over the stone wall protecting it. Bullets came at him, and he might even have been hit, but pain and injury were foreign things, and he was in their midst before they could fully register him, cutting a swath through the regiment like a death wraith the likes of which they'd never seen. A dervish of glinting blade that once among them, rifles could not combat. That their clumsy belt knives, pulled from sheaths had no skill to counter. No more mercy than they had. No more than they deserved, men who fired with intent into a crowd of unarmed people. And death came easy to him. It had always come so damned easy - - harder by far not to deal it, than to portion it out like just rewards.

And this sword made it easy. This sword cut through the metal of gun barrels like it was human bone and human bone like it was lard. This sword was the most devastating thing he'd ever held in his hands and he had wielded no few fine blades. All he saw was the enemy, and sometimes the faces were Indian and sometimes they blurred to the determined countenances of samurai and he thought this might be Hakodate or Tobe-Fushimi instead of some dirt poor village in India.

Until he deflected a bullet and stared into the shocked face of an Englishman and then he half envisioned Winter and his caustic eyes and his sneering condescension. Winter had raised a gun at him too. Winter had shot Sano. Sano. Sano. The name echoed in the numb recesses of his head.

"You damned - -devil." the man whispered, pale faced, hand trembling, finger tightening on the trigger.

His head toppled, cut clean through, that expression still fixed on his face and Kenshin stared with cold impartiality at the boy standing behind him. A British boy, in a neat uniform, clutching the flag of his regiment. An open mouthed, terrified boy with eyes filled with horror, that could not have been older than Yahiko, if he were that old.

There was a deficit of gunfire. An eerie wash of quiet. Just him and the boy and the moans of the wounded, the soft weeping of women. He heard his own heartbeat. The steady thud of it behind his ears, the rush of blood throbbing in his temples. Everything still stained red. The sword had a mind of its own, living thing in his hand.

The blossoming stain of wetness at the boy's crotch stalled him. The acrid smell of urine. The stench of terror. And him the cause of it. He glanced to one side, at the sprawl of bodies, red stained uniforms, discarded rifles. No villagers had made it this far in. He looked back to the boy, who had come so very close to dying this day and said softly, "Run."

And the boy did, slipping in his haste, scrambling down the trail the way they had come, the regimental flag fluttering to the ground, falling half upon the body of his commander, the edges of it darkening with his blood. Kenshin stood for a long moment after, sheath still in one hand, the naked blade in the other. The stench of blood and human waste was acrid in the air. Fear and sweat were. Too familiar, the residue of fresh death. He stared with a twinge of bewilderment at the brown, wide-eyed face of a corpse - - not comprehending for a second why it was not the paler skinned, longer eyed visage of a Japanese.

He shook his head, sharply, shuddering, remembering and turned back to the village and the dead. So very many dead. Bodies piled atop one another, mother's lying half atop children, their meager flesh not enough of a shield to stop the bullets from tearing through and into the small bodies they protected. Men sprawled in the street, wide eyed in death. The bodies of the regiment, dead from a different sort of wound. Dead by his hand. And he felt nothing. Not even that guilt he'd felt for killing Winter, who'd deserved it more than these.

He didn't comprehend that either. That utter numb when he ought to be aghast at the complete decimation of his vow. But then who was left to condemn him for it? Kaoru long gone. Kenji who'd known nothing of it and Sano - - Sano hadn't really cared one way or another - - understanding death better than Kaoru ever had.

He looked for Sano. He'd been at the edge of the crowd when he'd fallen, not far from the village well. The survivors shied from his path, from the naked, bloody blade he held. People crept from their hiding spots, or crawled, wounded, to the sides of their dead. Screams began, and wails of grief. But not many. There were more dead by far, than living left here and it had not been a large village to begin with.

There. Sprawled upon the body of a fallen villager. Surreal, almost, the blood smearing half his face, matting the dark hair on that side of his head. A bullet hole in his shoulder, through and through, the one that had rocked him, before the second one took him in the head. Kenshin stared down, until his knees gave out and he crumpled, kneeling in dirt damp from blood.

Someone was wailing, over and over 'no. no. no. no.' The rhythm of it throbbed in his head. His vision blurred, and he thought he saw a woman, at the edge of the forest, holding the hand of a child. A woman wearing a kimono, not a sari, staring at him through the veil of misery and grief that hung over the village like smoke. He blinked and she was gone, escaping into the forest, like anyone with any sense would do. Staying here would be a death warrant for them when the boy he'd let live brought the army back to take their revenge. Perhaps he'd stay here and let them try and take it. Perhaps he'd teach them what it meant to taste the vengeance of a hitokiri. Perhaps he'd take their heads one by one, until they did him the favor finally of taking his.

He bowed his head, baring his teeth, clenching his eyes against the warm wetness of tears. A hand gripped his wrist, fingers slick with blood, grip hurtful.

He blinked down at Sano's fingers on his arm, breath stalled. In the midst of the blood, an eye cracked open.

"Sano?" Kenshin whispered, hardly daring to hope.

Breath hissed through Sano's lips and he murmured. "Fuck, fuck - - this hurts - - Wha - - happened?"

Tentatively Kenshin reached fingers gone to trembling and badly, towards Sano's temple, brushing aside blood soaked hair. It was hard to see the wound from the red and the wet, but there was a score there, bone deep and he cringed, closing his fist.

"You got shot in the head. Again."

"Again? Must have a hard head, huh?" Sano said, before his eyes fluttered closed.

"Sano, wake up," Kenshin clutched his shoulder, fingers biting down, desperate. "Sano, stay with me - - please - - stay - -" He rocked, mind blanking, nothing but Sano's blood and the warmth of Sano's skin under his hand getting through, until someone pulled him back, an aged voice snapping at him to move aside. An old woman, maybe the one he'd pulled from a bullet's path, bent over Sano, pressing dirty cloth to the seeping wound in his shoulder, doing what Kenshin hadn't the wherewithal to consider and treating wounds. Sano was one of the few left alive that required it. Most the bodies were just that - - bodies, devoid of life.

She looked back at him, rheumy old eyes narrowed with anger. "You should have killed them all. One live will spread the tale and they'll come back with vengeance in their hearts. You should have killed them all."

She made a sign against evil. He didn't understand the meaning, but the look in her eye was clear enough.

"Tend to your own wounds," she said, glancing back at him. And he looked down, saw red staining his clothing. A growing blossom of it at his hip. A patch of it at his ribs. He hardly felt the pain. He pressed fingers to the place above his hip and with pressure, the sting of a bullet wound made itself known. A through and through above his hipbone, through muscle and flesh. If anything more vital was hit, he had yet to feel it. He felt the warmth of blood sliding down his hip, down his leg.

The old woman called for someone, a patter of rapid words that sounded like white noise to Kenshin. He stared at Sano's pale, red smeared face. At the shuddery rise and fall of his chest. His head swam.

The sword was still in his hand, bloody. Blood on the blade, blood on the aged leather of the hilt. It was a disservice to leave it so. He rose, using the scabbard to push himself to his feet, flicked the sword once, twice to shed blood, and slid it into the sheath. His hands shook in the doing. He took a staggering step, having no direction, and a woman cringed away from him, wild eyed, making a sign in the air before her, this time against him. There was a horse wondering aimlessly through the street, reins trailing, carefully treading around the bodies on the ground.

The old smith lay where he had fallen in Sano's arms. Wide, staring eyes. An old man who'd been innocent save for association with them. An old man that might have taken and different path and been spared this.

There was a boy dead on the street somewhere here abouts - - he found him by the bent figure of a woman rocking over the small body. Not the only dead child. There were always dead children, innocent casualties of war. Or rebellion, of revolution of simple greed. Starved or shot or drowned - - so many ways to snuff out an innocent life. And he had been helpless to stop it. To find Kenji before greed and ill-intent and circumstance had stolen him from him.

Grief welled up, black around the edges, as harsh as it had the first time he'd accepted the terrible truth. The leg on the side with the bullet wound gave out under him, and he went down, not fighting the fall. The sky swam above him, clouds swirling dizzyingly. A face appeared above him, but it was blurred, indistinct. They tried to take the sword, but he tightened his grip, refusing to release it. It had stained him, he had stained it. It was his now, indisputably.

They gave up trying to separate him from it, and fingers lifted the hem of his shirt, baring the wound. Perhaps it had ruptured something vital after all, because pain flared and receded, sucking him after in its wake.

 

 

 

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